Gender Stereotypes in TV Series
The first studies concerning gender portrayal in the media emerged in the 1950s with the launch of Second Wave Feminism. Mass media was a top priority for Second Wave feminists due to its oppressive representations of women in different genres. However researchers really began to address media’s misrepresentation of women and men two decades later, and this subject is still relevant in contemporary media studies. In 2011, a documentary dealing with the stereotypical roles of women in the media, produced by Jennifer Siebel Newsom and entitled Miss representation, reveals how media is developing images and content that shape our perception of gender roles by reinforcing already established stereotypes.
A gender role can be described as the behaviours, attitudes and beliefs that a particular culture associates with the roles of men and women. Gender roles are in fact assigned by society, leading to ascribed cultural stereotypes. Subsequently, sex role stereotypes are determined by the cultural beliefs about what the gender roles should be. Coon and Mitterer (2010) define gender role stereotypes as ‘oversimplified and widely held beliefs about the basic characteristics of men and women’ (p.365). Thus, men are generally thought to be strong, dominant and logical, while women are believed to be weak, passive and emotional, amongst other stereotypical roles which will be discussed later on in the essay.
In the 1970s, Tuchman stated that the media was denigrating women by depicting them in stereotypical roles, hence the dominant social values were being perpetrated by media content. Forty years down the line, the political economy of the media is still contributing to the misrepresentation of women. According to Kellner (1995), the media is a “misperceived source of culture pedagogy” that teaches us “how to be men and women, how to dress, look and consume” (p.5).
The main media texts that will be discussed in this assignment are the TV series Two and a Half Men and The Big Bang Theory, which both perpetuate long-held assumptions about female and male stereotypes.
Female stereotypes in Two and a Half Men
The Liberal feminists believe that the media generally depicts women as wife, mother, daughter or as a sex object. As I shall illustrate, this argument is very much relevant when analyzing the gender roles and stereotypes in the American TV series Two and a Half Men. The main protagonist of the series, Charlie Harper, is a rich jingle composer who lives in a mansion by the ocean together with his brother Alan and indulges in hedonistic activities. Most significantly, Charlie is a womanizer who hooks up with women who are slim, sexy and exceptionally beautiful. Despite being in his forties, Charlie detests any form of long-term commitments to a woman, and when he finally falls in love with a pretty and intelligent woman, he finds it hard to engage in a relationship with her while abstaining from sexual relationships with random women.
One of the most popular episodes of Two and a Half Men is the one starring sex symbol Megan Fox. In the episode ‘Camel Filters and Pheromones’, she plays the part of a sixteen year old girl with poor educational background, and the moment she first steps into Charlie’s house, all men, including Alan’s ten-year-old son, drool over her voluptuous body. She appears on screen scantily dressed and wipes the balcony windows in a very provocative manner in the presence of the two men. This episode is a good example of Laura Mulvey’s concept of the ‘male gaze.’ The audience views the portrayal of women mainly through Charlie’s perspective. Megan Fox’s appearance in the episode carries a strong erotic impact as the camera focuses on her body, particularly when she is sunbathing in her bikini on Charlie’s terrace, rather than giving us close up shots of her face. Similarly, Karen Boyle (2005) maintains that “physical appearance and dress are recurring concerns” in the portrayal of women in the media which “replicate the construction of women as objects of the male gaze in mainstream media” (p. 33).
Besides the countless women that Charlie invites over to his house for a one night stand in almost every episode, the women characters who play minor roles are also categorized into stereotypical roles. The brothers’ neighbour, Rose, is portrayed as a psychopathic stalker of Charlie, despite having been repeatedly rejected by him. She exhibits attributes of passivity and irrational loyalty towards Charlie as she keeps hoping that he would sleep with her again. Judith, Alan’s ex-wife, is portrayed as a frustrated and vindictive woman who turns green with envy at the slightest suspicion that her ex-husband is dating another woman. One of the few intelligent women that appear in the series is the brothers’ mother, Evelyn. Dressed in elegant suits and carrying with her a sense of sophistication, Evelyn is portrayed as being the ‘mean’ and ‘wicked’ mother, so much that Charlie and Alan are constantly trying to avoid having her around. She is also presented as being ‘heartless’ in the way she dates rich old man to get her share of their inheritance. These observations of the main female characters show how the series brings out women’s weaknesses and negative personality traits rather than their strengths.
To sum it all up, the show portrays women as objects of sexual pleasure for the male protagonists. On the other hand, the women in minor roles are indirectly defined as ‘the mother of’, ‘the ex-wife of’ and the ‘the ex-girlfriend of,’ while another woman, Bertha, plays the role of Charlie’s maid. Moreover, the women in the show are denied a voice of their own (except maybe for Bertha, who occasionally makes a witty and shrewd remark about one of the men) and their character is always filtered through the men’s perspective.
Male stereotypes in The Big Bang Theory
The sitcom The Big Bang Theory depicts typical American gender roles and stereotypical views of male and female behaviours through the characters of Sheldon, Leonard and Penny. Sheldon and Leonard are two intellectual physicists with opposite personalities; Leonard hooks up with many girls, while Sheldon is the weirdest person one can ever meet. However, they both conform to the stereotypical image of ‘geek’ while sporting different male attributes.
Deborah Blum (2009) argues that males tend to be more aggressive due to the testosterone present in their body. Sheldon possesses the male stereotype of aggression, however his aggression is verbal, whereas in her study Blum refers to physical aggression. He often appears making fun of Penny, the typical girl next door who is blonde and attractive, and being occasionally mean to her. In other words, he is intellectually demeaning towards her, which conveys the stereotypical viewpoint that men like to display their success and dominant status in their social group. This idea is supported by Aaron Devor (2009) who states that men are extremely competitive in their social groups as they exercise their masculinity by comparing their intelligence and status to each other. Devor’s suggestion is in line with Janet Holmes’ (1998) claim that men’s main purpose of interaction is competitive as it projects their interest in maintaining a dominant status and increasing their power. In the first episode, Sheldon and Leonard compare their works on whiteboards and start arguing that their own is better than the other’s in front of Penny. Thus, Sheldon fits into the stereotypical man who likes to flaunt his intelligence, and in doing so he is also being rather hostile and aggressive towards others.
Another common stereotype is the idea that men are the rescuers while women are the victims. These stereotypes prevailed in the films of the sixties and seventies which typically focused on male heroes, while women were presented as being in need of protection. This same situation is present in The Big Bang Theory between Penny and the other two males. When Penny is trapped in an unforeseen relationship problem, she seeks the help of Sheldon and Leonard who provide her with effective solutions to those problems. These episodes unfairly highlight women’s dependency on men to save them from certain unpleasant situations which could be easily solved by women themselves without the help of men. In another early episode, Penny slips in the bathtub and dislocates her shoulder, and the first thing she does is call Sheldon to drive her to hospital. This scene portrays Penny as the damsel in distress and Sheldon, the aggressive and antisocial geek, as being the rescuer.
Liberal feminists believe that in order to overcome the consistent portrayal of stereotypes in the media, women should take up non-traditional roles and exercise ‘masculine’ qualities. The media will reflect this change by portraying more women and men in non-traditional roles and by using non-sexist language. However, the objectification of women in the media is an inevitable occurrence. The documentary Miss representation referred to earlier shows how female solo artists do not just sell their music, but they are also selling their body image through the use of sexual connotations in music videos. This is indeed a backlash against Third Wave feminists, as these female artists are in control of their own image and yet they submit to the female stereotypical role of objectification. While the documentary goes on to show how media creates a consciousness which is largely determined by men, different women artists like Joan Jett, Madonna, Alanis Morisette and lately Lady Gaga have been appealing to women’s rights and issues either directly through their lyrics or indirectly through controversial images in their music videos.
Lady Gaga is openly bisexual and images of lesbianism are present in most of her music videos. Her extravagant stage acts and music videos are “sexually subversive and highly controversial affairs, focusing in particular on willfully flipping gender roles and gendered assumptions upside down” (Camp, 2010). Another factor which makes Lady Gaga stand out from other mainstream female artists is her antagonism towards feminine beauty, a stereotype which she completely undercuts through the use of masks, unflattering make up and costumes.
While it is generally agreed that the depiction of women and men as ‘sex objects’ is becoming more widespread particularly in the music scene, other stereotypes that were prominent in previous decades, which included the portrayal of women as housewives, mothers and as being wholly dependent on women, are gradually becoming less popular. Moreover, some critics such as Fiske and Hermes believe that the audience is not entirely passively receptive of such media messages. Hermes rejects the idea that the meaning of media messages is always produced and understood by the target audience as they are supposed to, calling this the ‘fallacy of meaningfulness’ (Gauntlett, 2002, p. 182). Likewise, Fiske believes that the audience possesses the ability to interpret media content and resist its ideological messages.
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